I watched an episode of Discovery Channel hit The Deadliest Catch. I enjoyed it too.
Working in the Alaska salmon industry since 2000, I have heard some great stories – thrilling and terrifying – from fisherfolk who also hit the crab season. The men and occasional women who brave the stormy sea for crab fortunes have seen their share of shit flung at them from churning oceans to irate captains.
At the end of this particular episode, the season was over and they sat down at the bar (maybe the Elbow Room). Then it was over.
How can you tell a story about fishing (crabbing) in Alaska and not show the full scope? What about the whole world of stimulant drug use to stay awake all those long hours. It’s not that everybody is doing it, but it’s a safe bet that if you raided all the wheelhouses shown, coke would show up. And what about the sketchy adherence to boundaries? Who has been getting away with crabbing in Russian waters? It would make for some damn fine television to follow the crew for another week or so. At this point, there would be a bars and lots of liquor; someone would be paying an $800 bar tab; someone would be bruised, bloodied and black-eyed from a bar fight; someone would be adding to their list of court dates.
Last summer, the Northwestern came to tender salmon at a processing plant where I worked. “Tendering” means working as a middle man – buying fish off multiple fishing vessels and delivering it to a processing plant. That way the fishing vessel can spend more of the opening (or time slot when fishing is allowed by Fish and Game) actually catching fish. I hadn’t heard of the Northwestern before she showed up and the crew introduced themselves. They were nice enough for the few minutes I talked to them. Soon my friend Sarah, who worked in the office, was fielding phone calls from people who wanted to come snap a picture or meet a crew member.
Pretty crazy considering there are hundreds – probably thousands – of tenders roaming Alaskan waters. I went out to the dock one day and snapped my own picture and did some visual observation.
The Arctic Mariner is a beautiful boat and would be hard for any vessel to measure up to. With the money coming into the Hansen hands, however, I expected a prettier package. The hold was rusty which means chunks of rust can break off and stick on the fish’s skin, and she looked like she needed some sprucing up. You can squint and make out the little designs on the prows of the boats. The letters on the left prow stand for the name of the vessel, but the Northwestern’s carry instead the initials of her captain – SH. Interesting.
So we had an opening, and the fishing vessels went out and scooped up salmon. The tenders followed and unplugged the fishing boats, so they could go back out to fish. Weeell….most of the tenders did that. One of the tenders didn’t show up.
As happens in a small town, word circulated that the boys had been out at the bar the night before and hadn’t felt up to tendering the next morning. It’s not unheard of, but you get more lip service, positive and negative, with a television crew following you a couple weeks a year.
Commercial fishing is big business. It also makes for fascinating stories tempered with danger, greed and vice. It can build fortunes, but heroes? Heroes are hard to come by, and fisherman are rough candidates for the job.